A figure skater lifts his partner overhead and, in one fluid motion, tosses her high into the air. She completes a full rotation and he catches her, setting her down gently onto the ice.
This dynamic episode is just one of the countless examples of skilled joint actions that the world’s preeminent athletes will perform in the XXII Winter Olympics. To the untrained eye, these sequences may appear to be nothing more than a well-timed series of individual acts.
However, they are actually indicative of a shared, emergent coordination – a sum greater than its parts – without which the Olympics, or even everyday life, would hardly be possible, says Robrecht van der Wel, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Camden.
van der Wel and his research partners Terry Eskenazi and Natalie Sebanz provide a comprehensive review of research explaining the basic mechanisms underlying joint actions in a chapter titled “Mechanisms of Skilled Joint Performance,” in the book Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory and Practice II, published by Routledge.
As van der Wel explains, joint actions occur whenever two or more people interact with one another, coordinating a particular action in space and time, to accomplish a shared goal. But it requires more than simply working together; rather, in joint actions, individuals must have what is referred to as “shared intentionality.” Not only do they share a common goal, they both know that they share this intention. Individuals then use this shared intentionality to coordinate their actions and accomplish a goal together.
“Even though these intentions exist within the individuals, they merge with one another,” says van der Wel. “It’s this merging that really allows people to do particular actions together that they would not be able to do by themselves.”
van der Wel notes that, while shared intentionality might not seem so obvious at first, team sports would look a lot different without it. For instance, hockey players would fail to coordinate their space and run into one another, while pairs figure skating would be met with disastrous consequences.
“If you are being thrown high into the air and making all of these twirls, you have to trust that your partner is going to catch you,” he says. “And you would need to coordinate your legs as well so that your skates don’t injure your partner.”
The researcher explains that, in some sports, such as pairs figuring skating, athletes are able to practice an ensemble performance for an exact context. However, in other highly skilled team sports, such as ice hockey, athletes must coordinate their actions in very dynamic, non-predictable game situations.
“Not only do you need to coordinate your actions very quickly, you need to come up with it on the fly,” he says. “Of course, the objective of the defense is to disrupt that coordination.”
According to van der Wel, whether someone is a trained, world-class athlete, or a casual fan in the stands, there is a link between one’s ability to perform an action and how one perceives someone else performing that action. As he explains, people code both their own and others’ actions in terms of the goal in mind. For instance, a skier performs a jump with the height and distance in mind, and not the particular muscles that are going to be used. From this goal, an individual then mentally works out the movements that are needed to execute the task.
“If I then code your actions in the same way that I code mine, that immediately creates a link between how I can actually understand your actions as I am observing them,” says van der Wel.
As the Rutgers–Camden professor explains, research shows that this link between action and observer has a wide range of implications for athletes, coaches, fans, and analysts alike. For example, studies show that, if an individual has an expertise in a particular skill, then simply viewing that skill in action is enough to stimulate motor activity in his or her muscles.
“So if you monitor the muscle activity of snowboarders watching other snowboarders in action, you will find that the muscles involved in snowboarding become, at a very minimal level, more activated,” he says.
Individuals have also been shown to benefit considerably through observational learning, provided that the model is proficient in performing the action, says van der Wel. For instance, he notes, a hockey coach can show a player how to take certain shots. However, if the coach isn’t very skilled, then essentially the player is getting a very poor model of what the performance should look like and won’t benefit as much from copying the action.
“Improving one’s skill is more than just practicing a lot,” he says. “When players are surrounded by other players who are at the same or even higher caliber, it improves their skills; you are getting the best possible visual and motor information that you can get. If you have experts surrounded by experts, so to speak, then it should be mutually beneficial.”
Furthermore, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, studies have shown that those with expertise related to a particular sport are able to make more accurate predictions when observing the sport in action. As he explains, experts need very little information on the actual movements in order to be able to predict the outcomes more successfully than novices.
“This means, for example, that a former Olympic figure skater would make a better analyst or commentator than a journalist who has only covered the sport,” he says.
It’s fitting, adds van der Wel, that Olympic sports would not be possible without skilled joint performance, for society itself would not even be possible. “People don’t think about it much, but imagine if we didn’t have that ability to coordinate our actions with others,” he says. “Not only would the Olympics not exist, neither would any shared events. None of it would exist, period. All of our institutions are based on these agreements and coordinated actions that we have with one another.”